Could tuition fees really cost £54,000?

Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent

tuition fee protestImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The last time tuition fees were increased there were waves of student protests

How much will it cost to get a degree in England when tuition fees increase to £9,250 in the autumn?

How about £54,000?

If that seems high for a three-year degree, that's how much a think tank has calculated a student could have to pay back with interest.

And that wouldn't be the full size of the debt. There could be another £40,000 still outstanding when fee loans are written off after 30 years.

When fees start increasing from this autumn, it will mean borrowing about £28,600 for three years, with the amount then rising with inflation each year.

But while students have battled for years over the headline figure of £9,000 and now £9,250, the Intergenerational Foundation says they're missing the much bigger picture of what it will really cost in repayments.

And it's going to publish its findings in a report called The Packhorse Generation.

Payback time

These extra costs start to rack up while a student is still at university, because interest is charged as soon as students start their courses, adding thousands to the debt before students have even graduated.

Image source, Getty Images
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Students pay back fee loans from their earnings after graduation

Students start paying back their fee loans once they earn more than £21,000 per year - and the more they earn the more they pay each month, until the debt, plus interest, is cleared.

So this means total repayments can vary widely.

The think tank, which campaigns for fairness between generations, forecasts that:

  • A graduate earning £41,000 would pay back £54,000 on their tuition fee loan. And after 30 years, a further £38,900 would still be outstanding.
  • A higher paid graduate - earning £50,000 per year - would earn enough to clear all their tuition fee debts within 30 years and would have repaid about £57,000.
  • For someone earning £35,000, repayments would cost £37,800, with £55,000 to be written off after 30 years.

A more likely scenario is that a graduate would start on a lower salary and gradually progress upwards.

And the think tank gives an example of someone starting out on £22,000 and then rising over the years to £41,000, with the projection that they would pay back about £31,000 and leave a further £69,000 unpaid.

These are not necessarily bad deals for students if it helps them into a good career.

Selling off student loans

But Estelle Clarke, a former City lawyer on the advisory board of the Intergenerational Foundation, argues that we're failing to understand the "stranglehold" of debt that we're building up for young people.

She also warns we should be looking nervously at the vast scale of write-offs in the current system.

Image source, iStock
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Would the sell-off of student loans mean tougher terms?

At present the taxpayer picks up the tab for unpaid loans after 30 years, allowing graduates to walk away from tens of thousands of pounds of debt and interest charges.

"Taxpayers end up paying for this system twice over. Firstly, they will shoulder the burden of an economy deprived of cash as millions of graduates' incomes are diverted to loan repayments," says Ms Clarke.

"And secondly, they shoulder the burden of the non-repayment of most loans due to the extortionate ratcheting up of interest in spite of regular payments made."

But the government has long considered selling off more of the student loan book to the private financial sector.

Would a private operator, looking hungrily at monthly repayments from millions of graduates, want more favourable terms and a bigger slice of that unpaid debt?

New York fee free

Ms Clarke warns that there is not nearly enough protection for students against future changes to repayment arrangements to "extract even more cash from graduates' pockets".

"No other lending has so little protection," she says.

Image source, iStock
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New York plans to offer free tuition to middle-income families

By international standards, the only real comparison for such levels of student borrowing is the United States.

But as England is increasing the cost of tuition, the US has been trying to reverse out of a spiral of higher fees and higher debt.

This month the governor of New York announced a plan to scrap tuition fees at state universities and colleges for families earning up to $125,000 (£102,000) per year, which would help 80% of households.

It reflected deep-seated middle class anxieties about student debt - especially for families not rich enough to afford the fees and not poor enough to get financial support.

This really can be a lifetime of debt, with warnings this month of aggressive tactics from lenders trying to recover student loans from pensioners, with the over-60s in the US still owing £55bn of student debt.

Under the Obama administration there had been growing efforts to tackle student debt.

But with the election of President Trump the future of student loans, now measured in the trillions, has become much less predictable.

No financial barriers

The Department for Education argues that England's system is already extremely accessible, because there are no upfront costs for any students.

Instead the costs are backloaded to be paid after graduates are working.

And since graduates are likely to earn more, they can afford the cost of repayments, which in turn supports the next generation of students.

"The English system of student funding is sustainable, and has been recognised as such by the OECD," said a Department for Education spokeswoman.

"Critically, our system removes financial barriers for anyone hoping to study - with record numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university last year."

But this is something of a turning point - with fees and debts about to begin a long upward curve. And the Intergenerational Foundation's warnings cast a cold light on the scale of the escalating costs.

Will this be the next stage of a sophisticated, self-funding, open-access, affordable university system, or unwitting steps towards a financial sinkhole?